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At worlds, U.S. ice dancers chase medals they missed at Olympics

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A question nagged at Madison Hubbell as she came home from the PyeongChang Olympics.

How do you let it go and move on?

Hubbell and her ice dance partner, Zachary Donohue, dropped from third after the Olympic short dance to fourth overall, struggling in the free dance. Donohue fell from one knee, putting his hands on the ice late in the program.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir took gold and French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron the silver, to no surprise.

The bronze, considered up for grabs among the three U.S. couples, went to siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, who also earned bronze in the team event, skating both programs. The Shibutanis lost to Hubbell and Donohue for the first time at nationals in January but were given first pick in the team event because they had better international standing.

So neither Hubbell and Donohue nor two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who tangled skates and fell in their Olympic free dance, made a podium in PyeongChang.

“That was something we really wanted, and I really believe had we skated our best we would have been third,” Hubbell told NBC Sports research last week.

Virtue and Moir and the Shibutanis both withdrew from this week’s world championships, a common move for Olympic medalists at the post-Olympic worlds.

That makes Papadakis and Cizeron clear favorites in Milan. Hubbell and Donohue and Chock and Bates could both also make the podium as they begin paths to the 2022 Olympics.

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“We have moved on,” from finishing ninth at the Olympics, Chock said, “but it’s definitely going to stay with us and we’ll use it as fuel.”

Chock and Bates had the chance to lead the charge into PyeongChang after Sochi gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White stepped away from competition.

They topped the 2015 World Championships short dance but were passed by Papadakis and Cizeron in the free. In 2016, the Shibutanis overtook them at nationals. In 2017, they dropped to seventh at worlds with Bates erring on twizzles in their free. Now ninth at the Olympics.

Chock and Bates took two weeks off the ice after their free dance (including when Chock was ill after they got home; she is also bothered by loose bone fragments in her ankle that require post-worlds surgery). Messages of support poured in during that time, including a memorable note from a woman who works with Bates’ dad.

“She said my son has cerebral palsy, and I see him fall down and get up all the time. Seeing your son and his partner, the way they got up was a great example,” Bates said.

Hubbell and Donohue shared coaches and Montreal training ice with Virtue and Moir and Papadakis and Cizeron before the Olympics. They go into worlds remembering advice from the Canadians, who are expected to retire.

“We were really lucky to have Tessa and Scott all year telling us that the month after Olympics trying to get ready for worlds was ‘the worst month of your life,'” Hubbell said. “So we kind of felt prepared for it to be like Armageddon.”

Hubbell and Donohue were also in third place after the short dance at the 2017 World Championships. There, like in PyeongChang, Donohue fell during their free dance, and they finished out of the medals (ninth) with the Shibutanis moving up to bronze.

“I wish the Shibutanis were [in Milan] because last year I gave them my medal,” Donohue said, “and I don’t plan on doing that this year.”

No Virtue and Moir. No Shibutanis. Would it make a medal this week any less prestigious?

“Years from now no one will remember who was there and who wasn’t,” Bates said. “A world medal is a world medal.”

Key Short Dance Start Times (Friday ET)
Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker (USA) — 9:42 a.m.
Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 10:23 a.m.
Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 10:30 a.m.
Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (ITA) — 10:37 a.m.
Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN) — 10:43 a.m.
Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 10:50 a.m.

NBC Sports figure skating researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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MORE: Best figure skating moments from PyeongChang

Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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